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from the July 2015 issue

Yoss’s “A Planet for Rent”

Reviewed by Rosie Clarke

The true power of science fiction lies in its capacity to convey the reality of human existence, and the threats we face from internal and external sources, while using language, images, and concepts that transcend common experience. This could not be truer of A Planet for Rent by Cuban science fiction legend José Miguel Sánchez, better known as Yoss. Author of many books and essays in Spanish, this inaugural English translation is thanks to David Frye, and part of publisher Restless Book’s Cuban Science Fiction series. Brimming with pertinent topics such as sex work, intolerance, immigration, the dissolution of gender binaries, and government corruption, this compelling book is highly relevant.

Joining a literary tradition of writers who envisioned Earth’s future in terrifyingly comprehensible ways, such as H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley, and Margaret Atwood, Yoss’s portrayal of Earth’s dystopian downfall weaves together fantasy and reality—at times troublingly close to the latter. First published in 2001, A Planet for Rent is Yoss’s thinly veiled, scathing critique of 1990s Cuba, using the genre of science fiction to elude censure. Inherently grounded in the historical, social, and political contexts that inform it, dystopian literature offers potential futures in which these contexts are taken to the extreme, usually with horrific consequences.

Cuba’s political, social, and economic situation and the country’s tumultuous history makes it a unique location for examination through science fiction. A Planet for Rent was written during the “Special Period,” a misleading title denoting the country’s scrabble to stay afloat in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Cuban government opened the borders to tourism and capitalism’s evils, an act Yoss describes as “prostitut(ing) the nation.” Communist since 1965, and despite its good quality of healthcare and education, Cuba’s 1990s economic collapse led to food and fuel shortages, unemployment, and the incarceration of dissenters and “counter-revolutionaries,” from which the country is still recovering to this day. The Cuban government has been accused of copious human rights violations such as torture, unfair imprisonment, and unlawful execution. Governmental suppression denies the populace free expression, and the resulting disguised critiques are epitomized in Yoss’s novel.

Satirizing our fear of subjugation and the other, Yoss’s implementation of aliens very literally confronts contemporary anxieties about immigration and diaspora. Set in 2024, the Earth in A Planet for Rent has been colonized by alien settlers, known as xenoids, who observed our inability/inefficacy to preserve the planet, and set out to save its few remaining natural bounties. However, in the process, they enslave humanity: humans find themselves both metaphorically and physically prostituted. Yoss opens with a sarcastic advertisement for Earth, promoting, “for rent, one planet, with all its history, with all its monuments and wonder,” but that “lost its way in the race for development.” Exhausted, the planet needs saving, and the only option is occupation. Thus the xenoid rule begins, and humanity’s autonomy is stripped away. The book is split into fourteen chapters, each a short story or vignette, implementing narrative, short essay, and manifesto styles. Yoss skilfully weaves themes and characters together into a rich tapestry, and each section gives us a more fulfilling, and fearful, vision of a dominated Earth–now an intergalactic tourist destination.

The first human character we meet is Buca, a sex worker, or “social worker” as they are known, purchased by a “grodo” alien called Selshaliman (we discover later that his kind have adopted Arabic monikers). Although we are thrown straight into an established world, Yoss is careful to explain unfamiliar terms, always keeping his science fiction soft rather than hard, while maintaining the sense of foreignness that makes sci-fi so beguiling: “polyps,” “guzoids,” and “Cetians” originate from planets like “Aldebaran,” “Proxima Centurai,” and “Tau Ceti”; the universe’s most popular sport is “Voxl”, and human-alien offspring are termed “mestizos.” Testament to Frye’s translation is how seamlessly these words fit into the overall narrative. Considering the book’s complex technical and scientific concepts, and Yoss’s invented alien terminology, translating the novel was likely a considerable challenge.

Buca’s situation introduces the reader to the desperation of Earth’s indigenous population, as people are forced to eke out a living by selling their bodies on an open market. Yoss’s concept of “Body Spares” is disturbing: individuals semi-willing or forced by legal sentencing to suppress their consciousness in order for xenoid visitors to experience living in a human body, its host becoming a powerless “marionette.” This refrain is repeated throughout, with Yoss appearing fascinated by body politics, particularly what “humanness” could mean in our foreseeable future. Deprived of autonomy, humans use their bodies for trade or literal occupation; while the latter is not yet achievable, with the progression of virtual reality and cybernetics, the uneasy notion of inhabiting the body of another is not entirely beyond comprehension.

Nor is this a novel concept, but Yoss is uniquely interested in applying his demarcation of the boundaries of human identity within Cuba’s history of occupation and governmental suppression. Furthermore, considering the recent developments in robotics, AI, and virtual reality, we are already experiencing a disintegration of the boundaries between, and within, human bodies. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and films ranging from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and most recently Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, our obsession with the margins of human consciousness and experiences that exist beyond the human body lead Yoss’s notions to appear all too conceivable.

We don’t encounter Buca again, although her influence is felt in several of the other stories; there is a ripple effect, with characters mentioning others who then show up in their own, separate plots. Each chapter focuses on either a socio-political feature of occupied Earth, or people suffering as a result. This allows Yoss to include a large amount of disparate information into a relatively short book without the narrative becoming fractured or disorientating. The descriptive sections explain in clear terms the aspects and effects of Earth’s colonization; for example, “The World Human Parliament” illustrates the farce of humanity’s authority, comparing the daily income of a gift kiosk with the annual budget of the government. Overall, the character-centric chapters are the most engaging, with Yoss skilfully adapting his writing to represent numerous personages. The downside of this approach, however, is that not enough attention is given to the more interesting elements, and personal narratives are neglected in favor of detached descriptions. 

Undoubtedly the most remarkable and disturbing chapter is “Performing Death.” Yoss’s blend of dystopia and body horror is distinctly Ballardian, with hints of David Cronenberg’s terrifying examination of physical mutation and mutilation The Fly. Yoss’s protagonist, Moy, is a human artist who has found himself under the direction of a Colossaur known as Ettubrute. Every day he performs for an alien audience, his work a process of bodily disintegration made possible only through futuristic medical tools. Suspended on a huge cruciform, his body is systematically destroyed by machines as he is pumped full of anaesthesia, allowing him to recite his equally visceral monolog, reminiscent of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist: “The artist can and must die­–in, through, and for his art. The artist is obliged to deconstruct himself in his art.” Once he is entirely destroyed, Moy’s head explodes in a gory finale, and an autocloning device immediately springs into action, recreating Moy from a cellular level. For him, this performance is an act of violent self-governance in a world where he is stripped of independence. Although evocative of Viennese Actionism, with echoes of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot,, and Antonin Artaud, this is a unique, profoundly disturbing examination of identity and autonomy in art–and beyond.

After “Performing Death,” the strongest story is “The Platinum Card,” which brings us back to Ettubrute, now custodian of Leilah, a young girl from the slums of New California. Essentially a coming-of-age narrative, we follow Leilah’s struggle to find herself within a familiarly unsavory Earth, where artists sell themselves for patronage, and everyone wants something from you. As this demonstrates, however superficially fantastical A Planet for Rent appears, each chapter is rooted in universal truths, and the reader is neither alienated by technical language nor patronized by over-explanation. Individual narratives are united by a fundamental question: how much would you be willing to sacrifice in order to survive? With this, perhaps Yoss is asking the Cuban people–and each individual reader–what value they place on their identity, and to what lengths they might go to preserve it.

Our obsession with dystopian potentialities is clear from the magnitude of literature and cinema fixated on all imaginable degradations of Earth and humanity. However, the most successful visions are those based in cold, hard reality, which enchant us with fearful possibility. Yoss plays with our fear of oppression, while reminding us of our relationship to slavery, tyranny, and persecution. His discussions of identity are the most intriguing and entertaining, while the book falls flat when it reverts to quasi-political terminology. Overall, A Planet for Rent successfully captures the symbiotic connection between our fascination for dystopian futures and our terror of devolution, and Yoss’s integration of socio-political commentary is refined and resonant enough to make his criticisms clear, his warnings heeded. 

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